What a crazy way to make a living. Having conquered the worlds of country music and theme parks, Dolly Parton has turned her attention to theatre. 9 to 5 is a stage reworking of the strangely successful 1980 comedy film of the same name, featuring the iconic title track, plus a plethora of new Parton songs.
A West End production has been in the pipeline a long time. The musical originally opened on Broadway in 2009 but closed after just 148 shows and has experienced a patchy performance history ever since. This staging, by Jeff Calhoun, was originally trotted out on a UK tour in 2012, and is now at the Savoy until September.
9 to 5 has a book by the film’s screenwriter Patricia Resnick, and features Caroline Sheen, Amber Davies, Natalie McQueen, and Bonnie Langford. Louise Redknapp was originally slated to star, but had to pull out due to injury – she’ll be back later in the run.
So, has Redknapp ducked a dud by taking a tumble? Is 9 to 5 barely getting by? Or will the critics always love this protracted production?
9 to 5’s plot is pretty much the same as its cinematic inspiration – three co-workers team up to take revenge on their slimy, sexist boss. In 1980, that takedown of workplace prejudice was box-office gold, but does it scan so well in 2019?
Some critics think its actually a timely return, with Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage ★★★) writing that “times change but the message still rings strong” and Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre ★★★) reckoning that “in the wake of #MeToo”, it “carries a new resonance and relevance”.
“It feels (shudder) pretty post-Weinstein, with its uncompromising focus on male shitness and violent retribution,” agrees Alice Saville (Time Out ★★★★). “It’s a hairspray-induced hallucination whose message lingers.”
“The show is a piece of slick commercial packaging, but it still argues that equal pay, flexible hours and in-house daycare are not only vital targets but also make for better business,” says Michael Billington (Guardian ★★★). “This may be mass-market feminism but, with its advocacy of workplace equality, I could not bring myself to dislike it.”
Self-proclaimed embodiment of the show’s target audience Francesca Peschier (Exeunt) goes a bit further: “The plot is the Scum Manifesto, feminist seizing of the means of production narrative that we deserve,” she writes. “A #MeToo and #MeStill cowboy boot with spurs stomping all over the Weinstein shit in the West End.”
Others, though, are less sure its story has something to say today. “Questions must surely be asked about how much of an ironic spin on the outdated sexual politics of four decades ago this really is,” observes Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard ★★). “The only people seated around me who were laughing were late-ish-middle-aged men.”
“The show as a whole is fun, if gaudy and silly, but its feminist message, when compared to the film, is like costume jewellery next to a Faberge egg,” echoes Tim Bano (The Stage ★★★), while John Nathan (Metro ★★) reckons that “a story in which the female revenge is not that much cleverer than the stupidity of the man who prompted it is surely unworthy of today’s post-Weinstein conversation”.
A jukebox musical this ain’t. Although audiences will be familiar with the title track, the rest of the music has been written especially for the show by Parton herself. The songs, though, aren’t much to shout about according to the critics.
“The songs have a little of Parton’s usual sprinkling of stardust, but only 9 to 5 and Backwoods Barbie — amusingly printed in the programme as “Backwards” Barbie — stand out,” writes Mountford. “There’s not enough real firepower here.”
“There are few memorable songs,” concurs Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★), while Nathan complains that the new tracks are “nowhere near as good” as 9 to 5, Matt Wolf (Arts Desk ★★) moans that its just “a series of songs that all say the same thing”, and Dominic Maxwell (Times ★★★) concedes that “Parton tends to deal out deftly articulate mid-tempo tunes rather than outright belters.”
Peschier disagrees. “Dolly is divine, she can do no wrong,” she writes. “The tunes in 9 to 5 are all bangers.”
The reviews are more divided over director Jeff Calhoun’s staging, with Shenton admiring its “sparkling propulsive effervescence”, but Wolf writing that “the entire thing seems aimed at the carriage trade to an extent not seen on the West End since Dirty Dancing”.
“A partly digital set by Tom Rogers and video designer Nina Dunn adds to the slick, colourful look,” describes Bano. “The really fantastic costumes from Rogers whack us right back to the 1980s in full, glorious Technicolor, saturation levels notched up to 11.”
But, he continues, “the show veers too far into Carry On territory in the way it presents men gleefully lusting after women”.
“There’s an awful lot of dubious business to sit through”, echoes Mountford. “Is looking at a woman’s bottom in a tight skirt still such a great source of mirth in today’s climate? And is the sexuality of women of all ages so easily divisible into two categories: to be leered at (younger women) or sneered at (Bonnie Langford’s lovestruck older secretary, Roz)?”
West End regulars Natalie McQueen and Caroline Sheen (standing in for Louise Redknapp), and Love Island contestant Amber Davies play the three protagonists, while Olivier-nominee Brian Conley plays their villain boss, and musical theatre legend Bonnie Langford his downtrodden secretary.
It’s Langford and the stepping-in sheen that garner the lion’s share of the critic’s praise. Sheen is “absolutely sensational here, full of grace class and determination” according to Shenton, and “just brilliant” according to Bano.
“Sheen holds the evening together with unshowy panache,” says Maxwell. “She will be a tough act to follow.”
Langford, meanwhile, is “fantastically game” according to Saville and “brilliantly funny” according to Sarah Carson (iNews ★★★).
“She rips off her sensible suit in one song to reveal a tight bodice; it’s a show-stealing number in which she dances, twirls, sings, and even does the splits,” describes Bano. “It’s brilliant to see a woman over 30 being allowed to own her sexuality on stage.”
“You’ve got to hand it to Bonnie Langford,” agrees Wolf. “This truly ageless performer will, it seems, stop at nothing to bring an audience on side and shows herself capable of leg extensions and the splits that might deter a performer half her age.”
Not exactly. It’s copped a couple of four-star reviews, but most critics choose to award two or three – hardly a ringing endorsement.
The cast are capable, particularly Sheen and Langford, but the problems lie with Parton’s patchy score and the plot’s questionable ethics, which some reviewers praise and others condemn. It’s frothy and fun, most critics concur, but there’s plenty to frown about as well. All takin’, it seems, and not an awful lot of givin’.